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Toruk Takes Flight at the Toyota Center, But Never Soars

The setup:

Isn’t it weird that the highest-grossing movie of all time doesn’t have more media attached to it? You can’t open the App Store without seeing something related to The Avengers/Marvel (#5 on that list), the success of Jurassic World (#4) means we’ll be seeing cinematic dinosaurs until we can actually clone them, and Star Wars (Force Awakens is #3) is Star Wars. Titanic (#2) doesn’t have the same media print, exactly, but still gets talked about pretty frequently.

Somehow, the highest-grossing movie of all time, Avatar, flies under the radar. Seriously, when was the last time you actually thought of the film, let alone watched it? Still, the brand has value, as evidenced by the fact that James Cameron has three sequels coming our way, allegedly.

For now, those seeking a return to Pandora can do so thanks to a new Cirque du Soleil experience. With some fancy special effects and bendy people, Cirque du Soleil Toruk: The First Flight is here to give you a Na’vi history lesson.

The execution:

What do you think of when you think of Cirque du Soleil? For most it’s going to be performances that involve humans doing near superhuman-level feats of acrobatics. There might be a story of some sort to frame all the riffs on circus culture and dance, but it’ll likely be broad and take a backseat to humans doing neat things.

Toruk doesn’t quite feel like a Cirque du Soleil show. In truth, for the first act, the show really felt like a weird Broadway experiment more than anything else. It seemed slow, even when the music was upbeat and the colors were vibrant. It was like waiting for an explosion of something, anything, and never quite getting it.

Which is not to say that it was bad, exactly. In fact, there are a lot of things to fall in love with in this show. The special effects are top-notch. High-definition projectors change the stage to represent all manner of ecosystems found on Pandora, and they’re all rather impressive; in particular, a couple of scenes that involve creating the illusion of water stand out as being particularly well done.

The costumes and set design are all great as well. The tails the Na’vi sport may look a little silly, but given that the costumers had to take CGI creatures and make them real, it’s worth cutting them a bit of slack given how good the final product looks. While the stage itself could be described as plain, there are moments in the show, in particular during the grand finale, when the lighting and props work together to produce bits of staging that are beautiful.

The acting is solid, better than it needs to be, really, for a production that's mostly spectacle, such as this. Raymond O’Neill is great as the Storyteller, who is exactly what he sounds like. O’Neill makes the story feel epic, filling in the gaps as necessary given that the Na’vi in the story don’t speak English. Priscillia Le Foll is fantastic in her role as The Shaman, and is really the glue that makes the last part of the play work; her screams are harrowing and do the best job of selling the story as it is.

It’s just a shame that all the good stuff is in service to a script that doesn’t really work. This is the story of an alien race on an alien moon, and any human above the age of ten can probably predict exactly what is going to happen after watching the first ten minutes of the performance. It’s more than just knowing that there’s going to be a happy ending; it’s knowing the exact story beats.

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And you can get away with that if you present that story in an interesting manner, which Toruk really doesn’t do. It’s Cirque at its most pedestrian, basically just ballet, jumps and spins with interesting costumes. The second act fares better than the first, when The Storyteller lets the action tell the story itself, but even all the – admittedly very well-done – kite and puppet work in the world doesn’t make up for the fact that the Na’vi don’t really do much but run around in very inefficient ways. That Cirque can make humans seem like something more but can't do the same for aliens feels like a missed opportunity.

The verdict:

Make no mistake, the combination of the Cirque du Soleil brand with the Avatar brand is going to equal success. It’s just a bummer that with the budget, special effects and world both sides had to play with, this is what they ended up with. Although it’s been quiet for a few years, with new movies and a theme park on the way, Avatar is going to return in a big way. Hopefully the new stories will be a little more adventurous than Toruk.

Toruk continues February 11-14 at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 1:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Sunday at the Toyota Center 1510 Polk. For information, call 713-758-7200 or visit houstontoyotacenter.com/events. $55-$115.

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